” In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one.
Because if you expect less, less is all you’re going to get.”
-Debbie Millman, Creative Mornings, February 2011.
It should come as no surprise that I’m blogging about one of my design heroes Debbie Millman once again. Just this past week I was lucky enough to attend the launch party for her latest book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits here in NYC. But that is not what inspired this post. For months I’ve had this idea marinating in my head about an aspirational post in response to graduating (or almost) with my Masters degree from Pratt, starting my design career in NYC and life in general. While the past few months haven’t panned out the way I envisioned in May, I’m beginning to see the pieces of my life falling into place. This summer I spent an amazing 7 weeks in Copenhagen learning about textile design in a place I’d never been, doing something I’d never done. Studying abroad seemed like something I’d never be able to do growing up, but it happened. I returned home and started a job as a designer for Starwood Hotels. In the coming weeks I’ll finish this all-consuming thesis that’s been on my mind for the last year. In many ways I’m exactly where I should be and I wanted to share some wisdom I learned along the way, especially for those in the process of getting to where you envision yourself to be. (I’ve also been watching a lot of Oprah lately, and her gospel is really speaking to me ..)
At the end of the spring I had this great idea of creating a list of tips for surviving your MFA thesis. Little did I know I myself would be in need of some of these same tips. As a current thesis student today, I don’t feel it’s the right time to create that list. BUT, I wanted to share some words of encouragement about life and working hard, because I feel that is something I so desperately lacked in my thesis journey. Weeks ago I started watching the show 1 Girl 5 Gays as I’d go to bed each night. Pretty mindless entertainment – mostly funny conversations about love and sex. One of the questions really struck me: What was your lowest point in the last year? Most of the people on the show talked about a break up, the loss of a friendship or family member, etc. All I could think about was school. I’ve spoken in great length about my struggles the last year at school and I’m still living with those struggles today as I’ve yet to finish. I think it’s important in life to acknowledge failure or set backs. It’s something people don’t really ever talk about, but I think it’s so important. Because it’s what we do in response to failure and set backs that define us. For the last year I’ve been spending my days and nights in an MFA program where I felt I never fit in. I always felt like I was battling for the legitimately of my ideas and my approach to design. That semester I received the lowest grades of my entire college career. A semester later, the day after graduation, I learned that I wouldn’t be in fact graduating as my thesis committee decided there was more work to be done. I was crushed. It was hands down my lowest point. I thought I could power through all the negative energy I was getting in school and win in the end. I didn’t.
The attainment of my MFA from Pratt is one of the hardest things I’ve done to this point. Never has a process created more fear, stress, and self-doubt within me. And that’s really a shame. In a design program we should be inspiring the next generation of designers through challenge and encouragement, not through fear. “You have ideas? Well we’re going to show you how to make them stronger.” I thought that’s what grad school was about. Not the case, or at least that wasn’t my experience. Recently a close friend reached out after a rough thesis critique. He said he was almost driven to tears as his ideas were ripped apart and dismissed. I’d been in that position several times, and it feels horrible. We (sometimes) put so much thought, effort, and heart into our work as designers, and to have it ripped apart can be devastating. It inspires fear and self-doubt. The night before I’d been listening to a Design Matters podcast where the speaker said, “Fear is the mortal enemy of innovation and happiness.” I felt so much fear my last year at Pratt, and I know many others did, that I second guessed everything I was doing. It was so unproductive. And it’s a horrible way to inspire students to go about creating work.
I want to balance this story with one of my highest points in the last year. While abroad in Copenhagen, each program awards a student with an academic/design award. I was lucky enough to win the award for textile design as student that best embraced the process and overall did a great job. That feeling of being recognized for the first time after a year full of self-doubt was an amazing feeling. After everything I’d been though, someone finally said good job. It made all the struggles of the past year worth it in some way, and powered me to move forward. So things brings me back to Debbie Millman and her countless words of wisdom. While you’re young and just starting out, “Don’t compromise” she says. “Now is the time to try and fail. Work as hard as you can, and harder than anyone else … and if you expect less, less is all you’re going to get.”
Many of these great pearls of wisdom came from a talk Debbie did for Creative Mornings back in February 2011. You can watch the entire presentation here. In this talk, Debbie shares her list of “The Top 10 Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated College.” I saw this talk online and wanted to write down all 10 in a list to share. So here they are! What I love about Debbie is that she’s so open to share her life experiences with others. She is honest and thoughtful, and happens to be a designer. But I ultimately find myself more interested in what Debbie has to say about life and being a designer, than what she actually designs. That’s never been important to me, though I do love her work. So my hope is that you’ll read Debbie’s list of 10 things she wished she knew so that you’ll know them today, and they’ll inspire you for the road ahead. Whatever that road may be …
1. Design talent = operational excellence. Operational excellence is what it takes to operate a business or a service well. Therefore design talent is a basic point of entry.
2. Design is not about design. Design is about a whole lot of things that ultimately result in design. You need to have an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Everything else (but design) is what fuels design.
3. Money is not about money. Sex is not about sex. If people really want something, they’ll figure out a way to pay for it. Period. If somebody tells you they don’t want something you’re selling because they can’t afford it, it’s a nice way of saying like don’t want to hire you or like you enough to spend the money. Or you have no convinced them that the value that you will provide will be valuable enough for them to pay for it.
4. Ideas are easy. Strategy is much harder. Strategy, or coming up with a unique point of difference for a product or idea is incredibly difficult. “Strategy is choosing to perform activities differently, or to perform distinctly different activities than rivals.” – Michael Porter, Harvard Business School . You need to know why you do what you do a nd be able to communicate that easily and effectively. You need to know your mission, believe it, and communicate it.
5. Know what you’re talking about. Tell the truth. Admit when you don’t know something. When you do, it allows someone to share something with you.
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